In August 2022, OL Reign invited fans to support a Wellspring Family Services school supply drive during their Kids Night match. At the game, generous fans filled four collection bins with school supplies and donated over $1,200 to help children and families facing homelessness. In the midst of a hectic season, with the Reign fighting for a playoff spot, captain Lauren Barnes volunteered to deliver the donated items.
Pulling up to Wellspring’s offices, Barnes was struck by the organization’s mission and impact. She also felt like the team could do a lot more to support the children and families they served, so Barnes returned to the OL Reign offices and collected all the old sweatshirts, jackets, and additional clothing items she could find. She returned to the nonprofit’s donation site with a giant, oversized bag stuffed full of clothes.
Last May, the team visited a number of small businesses in the International District to celebrate Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It was Barnes who set up and coordinated the trip.
Also in 2022, OL Reign nominated the Intentionalist for the Nationwide Community Impact Award. It was Barnes, yet again, who was the player representative for the award.
When the team was training and playing in Tacoma, the club dramatically reduced its single-use plastic consumption — partnering with a local company to refill their locker room shampoo, conditioner, and body washes, investing in reusable towels, and moving from plastic bottled water to recyclable boxed water. Again, Barnes inspired these changes.
Barnes also developed a sustainable travel kit and gave one to every Reign teammate in 2021.
You see a pattern, right?
For every community outreach effort led by the Reign, you can probably find Barnes doing something behind the scenes to support it.
“I always think, ‘Her parents must be so proud of her,’ because she is just such an incredible human,” teammate Marley Canales shared in an interview with Ride of the Valkyries. “She’s done so much for the community, for the team, for the sport. Throughout a career, you’re focused a lot on your performance and how much you can impact your team and the game, but she’s stepped so far over that limit of making an impact.”
Lu Barnes’ legacy
When I first approached the Reign for a story about Barnes’ re-signing, I asked to speak briefly with a couple of teammates to gain a better sense of her impact on them. Canales, Olivia Van der Jagt, and Sam Hiatt all jumped at the opportunity. When I apologized for pulling them away from watching a SheBelieves Cup match to conduct the interview, each player said almost in unison, “Are you kidding me? We get to talk about Lu Barnes!”
It might feel like a small anecdote, but it’s one that speaks to the kind of impact Barnes has made on her teammates. Over the years, OL Reign gained a reputation as a player-driven club. While staff and leadership manage schedules and rosters, the players are the ones who set the tone for team culture and how the club grows. Barnes — along with fellow Reign originals Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe — is a big reason this kind of culture not only exists but remains a part of the Reign DNA today.
Some of this came with necessity in the early Reign years, when you could count the club’s staff on one hand. But the “OGs” are as eager to continue leading community engagement and team-building efforts today as they were back in 2013. While that could feel like a burden to some players, Barnes takes pride in what she helped build.
“You know, to get things running the way we wanted to and create this really special culture, I think it had to be player-driven. It’s something that we took in with open arms. I would never say it was a burden. It’s a lot of work. I do feel like I hold more than one hat, but at the end of the day, it’s also my personality type. I like that stuff,” Barnes said with a laugh.
The legacy Barnes helped build is a significant part of what keeps her in Seattle. The Reign defender had a chance to explore other teams this offseason when she became a free agent. While the Southern California native did admit to having conversations with Angel City in Los Angeles — as the pull toward family was enticing — she was too invested in what the Reign built here.
“At the end of the day, and from speaking to my friends and my family, that legacy and the history that we’ve built here in Seattle is something that I’m very protective of.”
Having Barnes and Rapinoe choose the Reign during free agency were the biggest offseason moves that the Reign made, according to Harvey.
“For me, they were the biggest signings of the season because it shows what this club is. When they had the opportunity to literally sign for anyone in the league, they still chose to stay here, and I think that speaks volumes of who this club is and who they are as people.”
A leader by example
Barnes isn’t the loudest player, but if you speak to any of her teammates, they’ll tell you that they would follow Barnes anywhere because of the type of leader she is. She’s passionate about the game, works incredibly hard, and makes an effort to get to know and see each player in meaningful ways.
“I’ve never been around a leader like her, and it’s really been an honor playing with her,” defender Hiatt said. “She wants to do things the right way. She’s always looking at how we can improve the club, what can she do to make things better off the field. And then on the field, she’s so competitive. She plays with so much passion and it really makes you want to work hard and do the right things as well. It’s inspiring playing next to her because you’re like, ‘Okay, if Lu’s going all out, then I need to go all out too.’”
Barnes has high standards for her teammates, that’s for sure, but she also goes out of her way to make sure everyone feels welcome. That was especially evident for the seven rookies on the squad last season.
“Coming in as a rookie last year, I was very inspired by the way she leads and how she holds people accountable, but in such a good and positive way,” midfielder Van der Jagt shared. “Especially for all the young players that came in last year. She was just so good about making us feel welcome and like we have a place on the team, and just really helping us learn and grow.”
One moment, in particular, stands out for Canales, who was also a rookie in 2022. After she was drafted by the Reign, Barnes was one of the first people to reach out. The two had never met, but Barnes still took the time to send a text welcoming her to the Reign and telling Canales, “We’re going to take care of you.”
“That was a very simple but powerful thing to say,” said Canales. “She’s so much more than just a great teammate and a great leader. She does things behind the scenes and on the field that just make you want to follow in her footsteps. And I think that’s the true, most beautiful power of a leader — when you just want to follow them.”
Dominance on the field
It’s easy to talk about all Barnes does off the field, but her contributions on the field are equally as impressive. Heading into the 2023 NWSL season, Barnes leads the league in minutes played, starts, and appearances.
That’s no easy accomplishment considering two factors. First, the NWSL is a grind. The Olympique Lyonnais players who joined the Reign in 2021 described the NWSL as a Champions League battle every game. That Barnes has stayed healthy during that grind says a lot about her mentality. Second, the league has only gotten more competitive in the last decade. Barnes has had to earn those minutes. And earn them she has.
Barnes has featured in 189 of OL Reign’s 204 regular-season matches, in addition to post-season and Challenge Cup appearances. Put another way, she’s played in 93% of the Reign’s regular-season games over the last 10 years.
What is Barnes’ secret to longevity? Being more of a Toyota than a Ferrari, she joked.
“I’m definitely not a Ferrari — you know, those are explosive, fast, and probably a little bit more injury prone. I take care of myself. We have a staff that takes care of us all the time. And I think for me, it’s the balance on the field, off the field. I’m happy in both places, and I think that just keeps you, in general, happy and healthy.”
But if you ask her teammates, it’s her desire to keep learning and growing that has earned Barnes so many minutes over the years.
“When we’re watching film, she’s always asking questions and clarifying things,” Canales shared. “I think that that contributes so much to her success and the team’s success on the field, because she does all the right things to make us successful.”
That growth mindset was put to the test back in 2018. When Vlatko Andonovski took over as head coach for the Reign, Barnes’ future with the team was uncertain. The new coach was concerned about the 37 goals the team gave up in 24 matches the year prior. Despite earning NWSL Defender of the Year honors just two seasons earlier, Barnes wasn’t named to the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. Some players could have let the frustration get to them, but Barnes only saw it as a learning opportunity.
“Especially in our environments here, you’re always fighting for a position. I think that’s a healthy environment to be in. It was a great time in my career that I ran into that challenge with Vlatko, because he definitely opened my eyes that I had a lot more potential than what I was putting out on the field. And he was there for me through it. It was tough, but I was able to take a step back, reflect, and see where I needed to grow.”
Almost immediately, Barnes earned a starting role again — she would feature in 19 games in 2018. The Reign gave up just 19 goals that year. The next season, Barnes was named to the NWSL Second XI. She won 72.2% of her tackles, had 79 clearances, and led the team by winning over 59% of her duels.
“To play as many games as she has, in a league that keeps getting better every year, for just one club, is something I think will eventually be seen as one of the most impressive achievements in the history of the league, if it isn’t already,” Andonovski shared back in 2021 when Barnes became the first player to earn 150 appearances.
In 2022, her 10th season in the league, Barnes was again asked to put her adaptability on display. After spending almost all of her pro career at centerback, Barnes moved to left back — a position she did play in college, but it had been a while. She settled into that role seamlessly, earning the fifth-most minutes on the squad while completing the second-most passes per match, leading the team in progressive passing distance, and falling second in passes into the final third per 90.
It wasn’t just her desire to keep learning that earned the defender all those minutes, however. It’s also how consistent her performances have been.
“You always know what you’re gonna get with her, on and off the field, and it’s little things and big things,” said Canales.
Harvey agreed, noting that Barnes becoming the first player to 150 appearances “shows her quality, her mentality, and most importantly how consistent she is in her performances.”
A future in coaching?
There have been many ups and downs for the Reign and the NWSL in the last decade. That stress, combined with low pay, has caused a number of players to retire early. Barnes isn’t ready to hang up the cleats yet, as her passion is still as strong as it was 10 years ago.
“I feel like her passion for the game is something that contributes to her success on the field — and not only for the game, but also her passion for the club succeeding and all the players that come through the club,” Van der Jagt said. “I feel like she deeply cares about Seattle and the club and what she can do to make it a better place.”
Her knowledge of the game is also something that teammates point to, and one memory, in particular, stands out to Van der Jagt. The Reign were working their way up the league table in September 2022, and the team was about to start a difficult three-game road trip in North Carolina. Harvey tested positive for Covid-19, so Sam Laity had to step up to coach. Barnes was unavailable for the match, so she acted almost like Laity’s assistant — coaching her teammates from the sidelines and in the locker room at halftime. The team earned a tough 2-1 road win against the Courage.
Barnes has that same impact on the field in matches, and her teammates are continuously impressed by how much she sees on the field. She’s never just focusing on her position, she’s looking at every position on the field and what’s needed in those roles.
“I feel like she’s like a second coach that you can always go and ask questions, and you know that she’ll have an answer for you.” Van der Jagt said.
“Last year, I feel like I could just hear her voice at all times in the best way, just helping me out and giving me direction, whether that was in the game or afterward.”
Might that passion turn into a coaching career after Barnes steps away from her playing career? Perhaps, but for now, the Reign defender is just enjoying the ride. In recommitting to the Reign during free agency, Barnes signed a two-year contract that keeps her with the club through the end of 2024. That gives the city of Seattle plenty of time to prepare the statue in her honor.
“She’s just one of the best human beings I have ever met,” Hiatt said to close out our interview. “Full stop. Soccer player, off the field, on the field. Just one of the best, most amazing human beings.”